Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


During the journey down the river in Heart of Darkness, what is Marlow's relationship with the manager and with Kurtz?

During the journey down the river, Marlow accepts his place with Kurtz against the manager and the pilgrims as an agent of "unsound method" or perhaps "unhealthy mind." Marlow claims his "partnership" with Kurtz is "unforeseen," yet this assertion is hard to believe. After all, Marlow spends the better part of the story motivated by his fascination with Kurtz and journeying toward Kurtz. Marlow is intimately connected with Kurtz before Marlow ever meets Kurtz. He reasserts that he has chosen his nightmare—Kurtz—in favor of "these mean and greedy phantoms." Marlow finds his acceptance "strange," however, which suggests a recognition that his journey is one that has put him "out of his own environment," physically, mentally, and spiritually—a setting that lays the groundwork for potential growth.

Why does Marlow conclude in Heart of Darkness that Kurtz's final words are a "moral victory"?

Marlow believes that, in the end, Kurtz recognizes the horror of his hypocrisy. Marlow attributes Kurtz with the understanding that human nature lacks self-control in the face of power, greed, and wealth and that this darkness lives in the hearts of all men. This recognition, not to die in ignorance of his own nature, is Kurtz's moral victory. In the end Kurtz represents the best and worst of humankind. He is a man who is potentially great; he is intelligent, ambitious, and eloquent. Yet, even these remarkable traits do not protect him from the depravity that lives in his heart. It is this essential humanity of Kurtz that breeds Marlow's loyalty to Kurtz.

After Marlow's return in Part 3 of Heart of Darkness, what is the purpose of each of three people who visit him to inquire after Kurtz?

Each of the three visitors seek personal gain from Kurtz's estate, furthering the theme of greed. A Company official inquires after Kurtz, hoping to acquire information left behind by Kurtz regarding "territories ... and unexplored regions." He is motivated by greed, hoping to gather privileged information that will yield more ivory and profit. Next, a man, claiming to be Kurtz's cousin, inquires after Kurtz, hoping to hear about the end of Kurtz's life in exchange for further information about Kurtz's life. It may be that this cousin is another Company employee and is seeking possession of the "personal letters" Marlow mentions when he dismisses the first man. Finally, a journalist inquires after Kurtz, hoping to hear about Kurtz's fate. An apparent admirer of Kurtz, he leaves hurriedly with Kurtz's report, which he will publish.

In Heart of Darkness, how does the draped woman in Kurtz's portrait resemble his African mistress?

The draped woman in the portrait carries a torch, which creates a contrast between the light she carries and the darkness in which she stands. While the woman is "stately," the light shows her face to be "sinister." Similarly, Marlow describes Kurtz's draped African mistress as "wild-eyed and magnificent" and "ominous and stately." Marlow compares her to "the immense wilderness," reflecting its "tenebrous and passionate soul." The first time she appears, when Kurtz has first been placed on the steamer, she reaches up her arms as though to embrace the sky, and the shadow they cast seems to be "gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace." She is the jungle personified, the natural force that captivated Kurtz and is now trying to reclaim him. The two figures, then, are opposite: the civilized and the wild. The image of civilization is lifeless, merely a representation. The force of nature, though, is vibrant and powerful.

How do Marlow's comments regarding women in Heart of Darkness help to explain why he decides to lie to Kurtz's Intended?

Marlow says that men should "help them [women] stay in that beautiful world of their own." By lying to Kurtz's Intended, Marlow helps her preserve an illusion of Kurtz that is beautiful but untrue: "He [Kurtz] drew men towards him by what was best in them." In reality Kurtz draws the African natives to him through manipulation and fear. The Intended describes Kurtz's "generous mind ... [and] noble heart." Yet, Kurtz is not generous or noble. He selfishly exploits Africa and his people for his own gain, places the heads of dissenters on stakes, and spirals into madness as a result.

In Heart of Darkness, how do both Kurtz and his Intended suffer from self-delusion?

Both Kurtz and his Intended exhibit self-delusion, but only Kurtz really pays for it. Kurtz comes to Africa with the goal of carrying out the Company's stated civilizing mission and gaining profits. In addition to exploiting the land by securing ivory, he exploits the Africans who follow him, taking advantage of them by convincing them that the is a god. But he is captivated by a powerful force, the jungle, and as a result he loses civilization and descends into barbarism. When dying he is forced to acknowledge the horror of his own self-delusion. His madness stems from the gap between his ideals—the man he wants to be—and his greed and selfishness—the man he is. The Intended also suffers from self-delusion in that she willingly or blindly ignores the truth regarding Kurtz, which allows her to maintain a false image of him as generous and noble. Her self-delusion is less dangerous because she does not have the power to do evil to herself or to others. She is never forced to confront that delusion, however. She is likely to live the rest of her life in blissful ignorance of the truth about Kurtz.

How are the beginning and the end of Heart of Darkness similar?

In both the beginning and end of the novella, the River Thames is portrayed as a pathway from civilization toward darkness. It led toward the "darkness" of ancient Britain before the Roman conquest and mirrors the route of the African river toward the heart of the jungle. Darkness is a symbol of the depravity that exists within all human souls. However, as Kurtz shows, understanding this truth does not elevate the human condition or give it meaning. Rather, those, like Kurtz, who gain this insight are rewarded with madness. They are no longer able to live within the confines of civilization and form meaningful connections with others.

If the role of the Buddha is to provide insight regarding the end of suffering, is the comparison to Marlow at the end of Heart of Darkness accurate?

Marlow falls short of providing his listeners with information about how to end suffering. Rather, he appears able only to acknowledge its inevitable existence. Those who act out of their greed for power and wealth, such as the Company agents, cause the suffering of others. The African natives are enslaved and starved. Those who recognize how their ideals are undermined by their inherently corrupt natures, such as Kurtz, devolve into madness and suffer as they continue to cause the suffering of others. Kurtz cries, "The horror! The horror!" on his deathbed as staked heads still surround his recently vacated hut. The darkness that begins the text is not lifted at its end: "the tranquil waterway ... seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."

In what ways is Heart of Darkness a modernist novella?

Modernist writers examine themes such as alienation, loneliness, and self-consciousness to make sense of a changing world. To achieve these purposes, these writers experiment with structure and style, employing techniques such as stream of consciousness, irony, satire, and figurative language while rejecting traditional plot structures. In addressing the "scramble for Africa" and European imperialism in the continent, Conrad experiments with structure in several ways. He frames Marlow's tale of Africa with the tale of the friends on the Nellie on the River Thames and employs two narrators. Marlow's and Kurtz's journeys to the heart of darkness are figurative journeys of self-consciousness that parallel literal river journeys. Marlow is particularly concerned with themes such as alienation and loneliness in his search for meaning. Conrad also breaks from traditional structure through Marlow's voice. The character employs stream-of-consciousness narration, breaks from his story to address his listener, and flashes back and forth in time to tell his story. The text is also heavily symbolic, employing images such as the harlequin, dark wool, ivory, and drums to construct meaning. In the end the text defies neat interpretations. In fact, as one unravels the text, possible interpretations seem to multiply.

In what ways is Heart of Darkness an existentialist text?

Some of the basic beliefs of existential thinking include the following: (1) people are the result of conscious choices; (2) existence is meaningless; (3) anxiety over meaninglessness is the general state of being; (4) life cannot be explained and is therefore absurd; (5) humans are alienated from each other; and (6) death is the final nothingness. Marlow's conflicts in the text are existential in nature. Marlow makes a conscious choice to remain loyal to Kurtz over the Company, but this choice is a decision between two evils. What is the meaning of such a choice in a world that is absurd? One man carries water in a bucket with a hole. Natives blast a hillside without purpose. Although Marlow and Kurtz share a journey of self-realization, they have only a superficial connection to each other. Kurtz dies feeling anxious and without redemption, saying,"The horror! The horror!" While Marlow admires Kurtz's honesty, this honesty does not lend any meaning to life. Kurtz dies alone in his horror, and Marlow tells a story that lacks definition and perhaps meaning for anyone but himself.

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